He had gone to see a doctor about a lump in his stomach. When the test results came back, he forgot all about the knot.
That was 1984. My father was in his early fifties. He’d smoked since he was eighteen.
That day he quit.
Doctors removed 75% of one lung. He began daily trips for radiation treatment in Birmingham. I still remember the faint purple markings on his chest.
My father was not a large man, just over five feet tall and slightly built, with tanned arms and a weathered face. Within months he was thin and frail. He suffered pain in his back and shoulders from the cancer and the radiation. My mother would take a warm, damp washcloth and massage his back. Once day she asked me to do it. I remember feeling annoyed. I don’t know why. As I massaged his back with the washcloth, I was overcome with something I hadn’t expected: Compassion. Pity. Anguish. This man, my father, was slowly dying in front of his family. He knew his days were numbered and he was helpless to do anything except endure it. I remember feeling grateful that his back was to me. I didn’t want him to see the tears streaming down my face. I wanted to be brave for my dad.
As the months passed, he became weaker. He spent more time in bed. I sometimes heard him cough or moan. Despite his sickness, I continued going out with my friends on weekends. One night I came home to find an ambulance at the front door. I rode in the ambulance with him to a hospital in Birmingham that night. I visited him for the next few weeks whenever I could.
One Tuesday night in July of 1985, I stayed at the hospital with him so other family members could go home. The man who had taken me hunting and fishing, the man who had disciplined me with a belt many years before, was now a hollow shell, his tanned skin as thin as parchment. He moaned in pain and gasped all night. I didn’t sleep much. The doctors had told us he wouldn’t last this long. But he hung on.
That Friday, July 12th, my sister was due to give birth to my oldest niece, Brittany. I remember telling him at one point that the baby would be coming then. His lips moved but I could not make out the words, so I asked him to repeat them.
“I’m waiting for her,” he said in a low, raspy voice.
I knew then why he was fighting. To see that grandchild.
Two nights later, I was at home asleep in my bed when my mother woke me.
“Daddy’s gone,” she said in a small, sad voice.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes as my brain processed the words she had just uttered. I felt stunned. It had really happened.
My dad was gone.
My niece Brittany was born the next morning. Dad didn’t get to see his oldest granddaughter. He held on, he fought hard, but the cancer had taken over.
There was nothing left of him to fight.
I remember being at the visitation, staring in shock and disbelief at his body in the coffin. He was dressed in a suit and tie, his rough hands folded in rest.
I recall driving home alone later, feeling despondent, crying out in anguish how I couldn’t go on without my dad.
Somehow, by the grace of God, I did.
I was twenty-three years old when my father died. I’ve often wished I could travel back in time and save his life somehow. I regret not spending more time with him when I could have. I regret not going fishing with him more, I regret that he didn’t live to sit with me and laugh over a cup of coffee as my own children played nearby.
I regret that cancer snatched him away from me, just as I was getting to know him better.
I regret that he’s not here now, to talk to, to reminisce, to ask advice.
I regret the times I was not kinder to him, when I didn’t show him the proper respect. I can’t bring him back, but I can leave you with this bit of advice: spend time with your parents now, if they’re still around.
One day, they won’t be. 78